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The Yankees’ failure to learn the necessary lessons behind the ongoing decline


Perhaps the Yankees’ offensive struggles in 2023 can be explained simply: two freak injuries.

Anthony Rizzo’s header smashed into Fernando Tatis Jr.’s right hip as Kyle Higashioka back-selected the Padres star by retiring first. At the time of that May 28 collision, Rizzo had 11 homers, a .304 ERA with an .881 OPS and second-best Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs) among AL first basemen. The Yankees were 33-23 and the AL’s third wild card.

Aaron Judge’s right foot slammed into an exposed cement base at the bottom of the right field wall at Dodger Stadium. At the time of that June 3 injury, Judge was leading the AL in homers, was third in WAR, and was in a familiar pattern at his 2022 AL MVP season. The Yankees were 35-25 and still the third wild card.

Rizzo was placed on the disabled list Thursday with post-concussion syndrome, which the Yankees say stemmed from that collision more than two months ago. From May 29 until he hit IL, Rizzo had one homer and the worst batting average (.172), OPS (.492) and WAR (minus-1.7) in the majors (minimum 165 home plate appearances). Most of that coincided with the 42 games Judge spent on the IL, in which the Yankees offense faltered — and they fell out of a playoff spot.

Of course, the Yankees offense would have been better without these atypical events. But it would be simplistic to explain everything because of these injuries. The amount of top-to-bottom inadequacy in the lineup, which was revealed by the Judge’s absence and Rizzo’s downfall, needs to be addressed both personally and philosophically, or it would be a lesson unlearned.

Brian Cashman said last year he firmly believes the Yankees would have beaten the Astros in the 2017 ALCS if the Astros hadn’t cheated.
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Which brings us to the Yankees’ opponent this weekend. The Astros have beaten the Yankees in the ALCS three times since 2017, and each time it seems the Yankees haven’t learned valuable lessons.

It’s still a complicated discussion, as the Astros were discovered illegally stealing signs during their 2017 title season. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said last year that he believed his team would certainly have beaten the Astros in 2017 if not for the illegalities.

But the Astros kept winning — six straight ALCS appearances and another World Series championship last year. Their success is clearly not all about cheating. This season, they’ve had worse throwing injuries than the Yankees, along with long stints in IL for Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve that’s equal to the Yankees not judging, or more. Still, Houston had outclassed the Yankees.

Again, the 2017 ALCS is complicated by cheating revelations. But the Yankees have only scored three points in Houston’s four losses. Thus began a six-year playoff series in which the Yankees were essentially eliminated due to: 1) an ineffective offense lacking left-right balance, speed, and athleticism, and hitting for average; 2) their conqueror playing baseball better than them.

During this 2017 ALCS, for example, holes in Gary Sanchez’s catching defense became more apparent and easier to exploit. Greg Bird was ejected twice at the plate at vital moments, not only for being slow, but also for having poor secondary leads and in one instance he cut off third base badly.

But that was ignored, as was the fact that the Astros, who knocked out 22.9% of the time in 2015, a season in which they knocked out the Yankees in a wild card game, pulled off flashes like Chris Carter and Jason Castro on their team before the end of 2016. They then eliminated 17.3% of the time in 2017. Again, they cheated in 2017 – except Houston remained among the hardest teams to eliminate also since then. All-or-nothing hitters with big holes are exploited more in the playoffs, when the bad pitch is gone and scouting reports are more accurate.

The Yankees, after that 2017 season, were shocked when they were sidestepped by Shohei Ohtani. They pivoted to Giancarlo Stanton. It’s a watershed moment that has them further locked in, financially and roster-wise, to being right-handed and unathletic. Cashman married the “Big Hairy Monsters”. He wanted home run hitters.

Giancarlo Stanton
The Yankees pivoted to Giancarlo Stanton in 2017 after failing to sign Shohei Ohtani.
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This corresponds to the analytical model. Hit enough home runs and there’s 95 wins in there, and don’t factor in how bad you may look at other times. It also corresponded to the era. MLB was basically playing with super ball, especially in 2018 and 2019, when the Yankees set the franchise home run record with 267 in 2018 before breaking it in 2019 with 306.

The Yankees outscored the Astros 10-8 in the 2019 ALCS, but lost four games to two. Houston was even better at baseball. The Yankees, however, continued to double on right-handed, unathletic players, which made them feel like they weren’t even listening to each other.

When talking about how he deploys his relievers, manager Aaron Boone was meticulous about fielding lanes in which their stuff matched a patch of similar hitters. Logic.

But the Yankees essentially built a lineup that was one-lane and, therefore, susceptible to right-handed hard throwing, especially in the playoffs (that’s not all a roll of the dice). And the other downside was that Sanchez wasn’t a good defender. Nor was Luke Voit on first base. Neither did Gleyber Torres when he was out of short-term position.

Yet the casino’s ethos – stick to the system and you’ll win – insisted on ignoring defensive unevenness and athletic shortcomings, and aiming for home runs. But what if the league stops using a super ball? All those right-handed hitters who can reach the right-field porch don’t do it as often. And as a result, they become less formidable to throw, which reduces the number of batters and walks.

Last season, Houston swept the Yankees in the ALCS. The Yankees hit .162 and scored nine runs in four games. So they clearly learned their lesson — and used their big money to sign starting pitcher Carlos Rodon for $162 million.

Jose Altuve
Jose Altuve celebrates after the Astros beat the Yankees in the 2022 ALCS.

It was as if those in charge of Cashman’s baseball operations weren’t monitoring the progress of the game — or, again, themselves. Pitching coach Matt Blake’s staff was getting better at countering the slugging percentage by focusing on certain areas to attack. It’s part of the give-and-take of all sports – something succeeds, everyone goes to work to thwart it. The need for better rounded hitters with less exploitable areas was necessary.

But annual playoff appearances trumped why the Yankees were eliminated in roster building and philosophy. That’s until now, when even making the playoffs is in jeopardy.

Last month, Cashman fired a coach during a season for the first time. Batting coach Dillon Lawson had a theory for hitting — finding a pitch to shoot through the air — but didn’t seem able to help adapt in real time to what was happening to his offense.

Gary Sanchez
Gary Sanchez’s shortcomings have often been exposed during the playoffs.
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The Yankees were going home plate like an at-bat was a theory rather than a competition. This is not a theory for Altuve or Alvarez or Alex Bregman. It’s a competition and what happens in the game – scoring, inning, pitching – should shape the type of at-bat needed. It happens regularly in October against the Yankees.

New hitting coach Sean Casey is trying to embrace that philosophy, and there are baby steps. Anthony Volpe’s draw rate went from 44.3 percent to 37.5 percent under Casey, and an all-court approach made his plate appearances more competitive. When Torres works the count and uses the entire pitch, the quality of his hitters also increases.

Of course, everything would have been better if Rizzo and Judge hadn’t suffered freak injuries. But those series Astros were crying out for the Yankees’ need to adapt long before those injuries.


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